A Region in Agony

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 18, 2004

TEL AVIV -- A former Israeli army officer tells me she will not allow her 9-year-old daughter to play outdoors. She takes her only to the beach here, which is wide open and not a rich target for suicide bombers. When she visits the United States -- which she will soon do again -- she exults in the Fourth of July celebration in the Maine town where friends take her. It is thrilling to be in a crowd and not to be afraid.

Her apprehension is noteworthy not just because she was once a fearless soldier but because it is so common. Ask anyone here and you get similar stories. A journalist tells me that he will not allow his daughter to take a bus to college. He got her a car. It was expensive, but it had to be done. When his son comes home on leave from the army, he picks him up so that he, too, will not take the bus. The journalist does not mention what I know: Several years ago, he lost a son in a suicide attack.

I have been to Israel numerous times over the years, but never have I seen it like this. Americans have become accustomed to invasive security measures -- at government buildings, at airports, even in private office buildings. But in Israel, there's a guard checking bags at grocery stores and drugstores, at banks and restaurants. Even so, in restaurants, I prefer the rear and I watch the door. The security guards are a comforting but also a disquieting presence. This is a jittery place.

Not all that long ago, Israel was surrounded by neighbors with which it was intermittently -- and always officially -- at war: Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. First Egypt made peace, then Jordan. Lebanon hardly matters, and Syria, deprived of its patron, the Soviet Union, is no longer a threat. Iraq is occupied by an American army. But the external threat has been replaced by an internal one. It is a paradox. The enemy is no longer at the gates. Through terrorism, it has managed to get inside them.

The paradox stems partially from the settlements policy. To change the so-called facts on the ground, the West Bank and Gaza were seeded with settlements, everything from a handful of trailers to immense housing blocks. This was the policy, stated or not, of every Israeli government, particularly the right-wing Likud, now in power. Above all, it was the policy of Ariel Sharon, the former general and now the prime minister. Some saw the settlements as a defensive measure, an early warning system to slow up an invading Arab army; some saw them as Israel's version of Manifest Destiny, a Greater Israel, that would be big and powerful; and some, the religious, saw them as God's commandment. Now the settlements, intended to make Israel both larger and more secure, have become an awful obligation, an oppressive irritant to the Palestinians and a burden to the Jewish state.

Sharon decided to abandon the Gaza settlements -- about 7,000 Jews in a sea of more than 1 million Palestinians. He asked his Likud Party to ratify the policy in a referendum. Settlers from Gaza and the West Bank went house to house among Likud members: How can you put me out of my home? How can you turn your back on a Greater Israel? How can you reward the Palestinians for terrorism? In the end, Sharon -- the hardest of the hard-liners -- lost the referendum to even harder-liners.

So now Israel fights a dirty war in Gaza. It has lost 13 soldiers there in the past two weeks. The Palestinians have suffered even more dead -- not to mention homes destroyed. What for? It's hard to explain. Sharon will get his way and most if not all of the settlements will go. Every minister here tells me so. In the meantime, though, Israelis and Palestinians die. Most Israelis -- maybe as much as 70 percent, the polls tell us -- favor a pullout. Yet their sons die for another moment or two in a place no one but the most zealous of settlers wants. It's tragic. It's criminal.

The settlements have made Israel crazy. To keep them in the West Bank, the state erects fences and walls. It builds highways and tunnels that, in practice, only Jews can use. It has shattered the West Bank into cantons. Palestinians are kept from Jews, but also from one another. The consequences are horrendous. The Palestinian economy is flattened. So, too, is Israeli morale and its moral standing in the world. In Gaza, Israel demolishes homes to make its troops safe. On its own playgrounds, though, it can't do the same for a 9-year-old girl.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Thsi article also appeared in the Miami Herald on Friday, May 21, 2004